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Reference Tracks: Your Secret Weapon in Music Production

Are you having trouble getting your music onto your favorite playlists or labels? Are you just trying to make music that stands up to your favorite artist? This one technique might be the thing that's holding you back. Let's talk about referencing and all the ways it can help you take your music to the next level and get people adding it to their playlists!

Referencing is simply comparing your music directly to other music that you know sounds good, to ensure your song stands up to it in every way. Referencing can be extremely helpful in mixing and even in arranging and writing your music!

Getting Started

The first thing you need to do is to add the file of a song you like into your DAW to reference. You can acquire this file several ways, such as through iTunes, ripping a CD that you own onto your computer, or something like a youtube to mp3 downloader that you can find via a google search (for legal reasons, I have to recommend to only download music this way that you have purchased). Once you have the file, drag it into your daw, and make sure it's output isn't going through your mastering chain, or you'll be adding effects to the reference (don't do that!)

This can get a little bit tricky if you're adding plugins to the master of your track, but I'll share a good workaround you can set up in Ableton for referencing below when we talk about setting up the session for mix checking. If you have a different DAW, you'll have find your own workaround, sorry!

Referencing for Arrangement & Songwriting

One thing you can use your reference for is to assist you with your arrangement. Especially if your song is the same BPM, you can really just follow along section by section and see what elements your reference song brings in and takes out, and do something similar in your own track. This is a great way to improve your arranging skills! You can also easily do a vibe check on your own chords and melodies this way, by taking a step back and seeing if it makes you feel a certain way or if it falls flat compared to the vibe and feeling of your reference.

Referencing Tools for Mixing

This is arguably the main component of referencing, and mixing without a reference can be very tough. You'll want to be listening for various things here, and making sure your song hits as well as the reference track in terms of loudness, fullness in the frequency spectrum, and stereo width. For this, we can set up some easy EQ filters to directly focus on specific ranges.

The first thing you'll want to do is set up a group at the end of your master, after any mastering effects, called referencing tools. The first plug in you should add here is a Utility, and turn on "mono". This will be the mono switch, to test how your song will sound in mono. This can be useful to hear if you have phase issues with stereo information and just in general make it easier to hear if you have your frequency spectrum sounding good without the distraction of the stereo image. I also recommend setting up a key command (mine is 4, so press command k, or control k on windows, click the on/off switch of the utility, and press the number 4)

The next thing in your group should be some EQs. They should filter specific frequency ranges, the exact number of the frequencies aren't super important but I recommend four ranges as follows: sub at around 130 hz and below, mud at around 130 - 600 hz, mids at around 600 - 5k hz and highs above 5k. It should look something like the picture below.

Now, you'll want each of these EQs to also have key commands, so turn them all off, as well as the utility before it, press command k (control k on windows) and for each EQ press the next number (I have them as 5, 6, 7, 8 respectively).

One last EQ to have in your chain is a stereo width checker. This is going to remove all the mids and let you listen only to the sides, to compare your stereo width to a reference. How you'll want to do this, is in EQ8 on Ableton, you open the "Mode" drop down menu and choose M/S, which stands for Mid Side. Select the Mid using the "edit" toggle button making sure it says M, and drag a high pass filter all the way to the top, cutting all of the mids. When you turn this EQ on, you will only hear the side information. I have this one set up on the key command of 9.

Setting Up Your Reference Tools on Reference Tracks

Now that you have all of your tools set up on your master chain to check specific parts of your song, you need to be able to apply this to your reference at the same time and without sending your reference through the master chain. Here's how you do this in Ableton. First, you'll need to make a group called "references" in your session. I like to put 3 audio tracks in here. I also key command the solo button for each audio track respectively to 1, 2, and 3.

For your reference group, make sure you set the output to "Ext Out" rather than master, so that it doesn't go through your master chain. Now, the last step, is to copy your referencing tools group from the master onto the reference track group. You'll have to go through and add all of the key commands again, make sure to add the same commands to the same plugins and make sure that everything is turned off at the same time so when you press the command it turns on the corresponding plug in on both the master and the reference group.

Once you have this set up, it will be very easy for you to bounce between whatever track you are working on and your reference, and compare the lows, the sides, the mids, or anything else! After you have this setup, you'll want to make sure to save it as your default set in Ableton so you never have to think about it again and every project you start will be loaded with these tools ready to go!

Wrapping Up

Referencing is one of the most important tools in your arsenal to level up as a producer, and helps you ensure that you get a quality mix every time. If you learned something new, consider giving this post a like and a comment! As always, you can hear how I use this in my own music at Ryahu for dance music and philip j loaf-eye for Lofi music.

Until Next Time!


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